There are a number of ways of reading the story of Noah and the Flood. Today I would like to reflect on two possibilities.
One way is to read it as a literal historical account. When one does so, then all sorts of questions follow:
- Today we know of million of species. How did Noah fit all those animals into the ark? Even if one were to use a modern day cruise-liner, it would seem like a logistical impossibility.
- How would science explain a flood that covered every land mass on earth with water up to the highest mountain peaks. Scientifically speaking it is sounds like an impossible story.
- Perhaps the most important question of all... Is God really like that? Did God, in a flash-flood of anger, really wipe out the whole population of the earth. Is God really like that? If, as we learn from Jesus, God is essentially love, then how does a loving God in a moment of calculated anger wipe out the entire inhabited world. Is this a God you can trust? Because if truth be told, we all have our weaknesses and faults. None of us is without our problems and without our sins. Are any of us safe in the hands of such a ruthless and angry God?
“I am troubled by this story of the universal flood. I’m troubled by what it seems to suggest on the surface about the nature and character of God. I’m troubled by the horror of the text. The horror that is not recorded. The drowning. The screaming. The gasping. The fleeing to higher ground, but to no avail. The climbing of trees to higher branches but to no avail. The final embraces. The words of love. The letting go of children. The unanswered prayers. If it were a movie, it would be a horror movie. Age restricted and rightly so. The destruction of all of humanity? The destruction of creatures? Beautiful and innocent? The wickedness and violence of humanity seems to be answered with an even greater wickedness and violence from God, suggesting that there is no problem too big that violence cannot solve. This sounds like Terminator 3."
Isn't it interesting that probably the most popular image that is used on a children’s Bible is the image of Noah and the Ark.
And yet, Wendy shared with me that as a child, growing up with this story she found it quite traumatising. What if she were one of those who God chose to wipe out in a flood. What about all those innocent animals that were made to suffer for the sins of human beings?
Reading this story as a literal history raises an enormous amount of questions...
There is a second possible way to read this story is to read it as an example of ancient Jewish mythology, as a way of explaining and making sense of a world that especially for ancient people, must have often seemed unpredictable and chaotic.
Rob Bell puts it like this....
Imagine you had no pictures of earth from outer space, no weather reports, no Google images, no airplanes – imagine if you’d never been a few miles from where you were born. And then imagine a flash flood – massive, undulating, swirling, terrifying water – coming at you out of nowhere and wiping away your house and crops and animals and family members. Imagine how devastating that would be to your psyche.
You would do what people do whenever they suffer – you’d look for causes... an explanation. And in the ancient world, it was generally agreed upon that the forces that caused this were the gods who had had it up to here with humans and all their backstabbing, and depraved ways and had decided to unleash their wrath.
That’s how people saw the world. That’s how they explained floods.
What is probably of particular interest is that cultures all around the world have folk tales within their sacred mythologies of flood stories. Often the stories involve one or two people who are saved, and who have to begin all over again. Often, but not always, they involve a deity wanting to punish humanity for their misdeeds.
When the world seems like an unpredictable place with forces much greater than yourself, these forces become personified as the gods, or the ancestors, or as signs that the gods, the ancestors or the Supreme Being is sending a punishment. What other explanations were there for primitive, ancient people who had no other knowledge of the weather.
When read in this light, the story in Genesis 6-9 stands for us as an example of an ancient Jewish myth attributing the destructive forces of a great flood to the punishing will and actions of the Divine Being.
Is that the end of the story for us? Is there no further or deeper meaning that can be found in this story?
Some interpreters have suggested that while in many ways, this story needs to be regarded as part of a primitive ancient Jewish mythology, there is also something quite remarkable about this particular Flood Story. There are rays of light that shine through this ancient primitive myth that are worthy of our reflection today, thousands of years later.
What is perhaps particularly interesting in this Jewish version of the ancient Flood story is that we have an unexpected ending to the story... The God-figure does a strange thing. The God-figure in the story expresses regret over what has happened. Isn’t that an interesting twist in the tale. In most ancient mythologies the gods were not portrayed as really caring very much about human beings. But in this version of the story, this God-figure has a change of heart.
Part of the punchline of this ancient Jewish rendition of the flood mythology is that God forsakes what has been called the myth of redemptive violence. The myth of redemptive violence is the belief that somehow peace can be achieved in this through violence, through wiping out one’s enemies and the undesirables of this world by brute force.
At the beginning of this story the God-figure seems to be a believer in the myth of redemptive violence. If he can wipe out all the evil doers in this world with brute violence, with a divine act of mass genocide, only saving one righteous man and his family, then the problem of evil will be dealt with in this world, and things can go back to the original harmony that God had intended for this world.
But within just a few verses of the end of this story, it becomes apparent that the myth of redemptive violence is really just a myth, an illusion. It doesn’t work. Not even in the hands of an almighty God. No sooner has the flood receded and Noah and his family have begun to re-settle themselves and repopulate the earth, sin reappears and the whole downward cycle happens all over again.
Even though this ancient Jewish legend or myth is primitive and violent it carries with it a deep and a profound reflection on the nature of violence as a means to solve the problems of the world. How many of us, like the God-figure in this story haven’t at one time or another had the same desire: the desire to see the wicked of the earth wiped out with one final act of violence. But this ancient Jewish story conveys a profound message: the myth of redemptive violence doesn’t work, not even in the hands of an almighty God.
And so in this profound ancient and primitive story, the God-figure in the story regrets his actions. One can even say, God, repents. He turns his back on violence. Like an ancient warrior who has seen too much violence in his life-time, he hangs up his warrior's bow in sorrow. Some interpreters would say that that is the real significance of the rainbow in this story. It is taken as a symbol of God renouncing the way of violence, hanging up his warriors bow in the heaven’s as an eternal reminder that violence is not the answer.
And so by the end of the story, no longer does the God character believe that violence is the answer to the problems of this world. God must find another way.
And that brings us to the story of Jesus. In the story of Jesus, we find a new way to address the problems of this world. Not through redemptive violence. Put away your swords, Jesus says to Peter in the garden of Gethsemane when the Romans come to arrest him. Jesus seeks to express a different way of bringing peace on earth. Not by slaying his enemies with a sword or even a great flood, but rather breaking open their hearts in an act of supreme love and sacrifice. Instead of redemptive violence, Jesus invites us to become part of the story of redemptive love.